Friday, December 24, 2010

Aswan, Egypt

There are thousands of feluccas on the Nile near Aswan.

Our train ride to Aswan from Luxor, I expected an experience similar to Europe. It was better. When we arrived, they were eager to help store our bikes, but this was because they wanted baksheesh. When we got off the train, they weren't shy about asking for it. Once we got on the train, we found our first class car pretty easily. It was almost empty even though most of the train was full. The seats were comfortable. There was room to spread out. I was loving it. The scenery was interesting. On the west side of the train, there was desert. On the east side, there was the Nile River, lush green irrigated farmland, and possibly a dune in the distance. It was a drastic contrast that was a little surreal because you got the different views by looking out the opposite sides of the train.

Looking out the opposite sides of the train.

The view out the west side of the train.

When we arrived at Aswan, we had some trouble finding a hotel. One that we found would only let us store our bikes in the ground floor foyer while the reception was upstairs. They insisted the street was busy and that someone would see if someone tried to steal our bikes. I insisted that the street was busy and anyone interested in taking them would see them unattended. They didn't budge. We left and eventually found a place that we had to go up a street of steps to get to.

Feluccas on the Nile.

More feluccas.

After checking in, we decided to get to visit the large Elephantine island in the middle of Nile. There was a 1 pound ferry to get across. The kid said the tickets were 5 pounds. I said we knew otherwise. An old guy came around and said it was a special rate for the holiday. I gave a long winded version of saying bull that one another kid salesman snickered at. He knew I knew what we were talking about, but he wasn't making the decisions. While this was happening, an Egyptian guy came by and paid 1 pound. We said, see, the price is 1. They said it was just because he was a regular. We wanted to go to the island, but we weren't willing to play into this ridiculousness. We walked. Their price didn't change when we left. Usually, it does.

Nubian boat and home.

Boy trying to hitch a ride with our felucca in his own boat.

While we walked down the river to let me clear my head from the frustration of people trying to rip me off, a bunch of felucca drivers harassed us. One guy wasn't too aggressive and didn't get under my skin. We started chatting. Sooner or later, he talked us in to going for a sail around the island instead of going to it. It might be the best thing we did in Aswan. It was peaceful. It was quiet. No cars. Just Betty, me, and our two captains as we sailed around Elephantine Island as the sunset. At one point, one of our captains used a cup to take a drink directly out of the Nile. We asked him about and he said it was safe because it was so far up river. I wasn't willing to try it for myself.


Felucca at sunset.

After the felucca ride, we grabbed dinner at a place that didn't have any prices on the menu. The host quickly filled them in when we asked. After dinner, we headed back to our hotel for the night. We were going to be getting picked up at 3:30am for a day tour down to Abu Simbel and needed some sleep. I had decided that I wanted to take a tour because I was sick of going through the frustrations of making each step happen by ourselves. With the tour, they would take care of everything. There are two tour options, a short one and a long one that stops at extra places on the way back. When we were getting ready for bed, we decided that we did not want to do the longer tour so we called down to change it. When Betty called around 10pm(?), they let us know that both tours were full and they could not get us on. Betty asked when they planned to tell us that or if they were going to wait until 3:30am in their morning. They didn't get it and said, 'Well, we are telling you now.' I suspect we would have found out at 3:30am in the morning.

Bread baker in the souq.

Morning in the souq.

The next morning, we went for a stroll in the souq before it really got busy. On our way through, we found a spice guy selling variety packs that were displayed together brilliantly. A few of you now have those packets as presents. From the souq, we filled up the rest of our day with a quick tour of the sights just outside of Aswan: the High Dam, the Temple of Philae, and the unfinished obelisk.

Spices in the souq.

Our first stop was the High Dam. Before the dam was built, the Nile River flooded every year and brought nutrients to the floodplain and delta. It made for ideal farming during good years, but the floods unpredictability also led to unpredictable crop yields. Some years it might be right. Other times, it might be too high and wipe out crops or too low and a drought would spread. The dam stopped the unpredictability, but it also keeps the annual nutrients from reaching the floodplain and delta. Even though the dam is culturally interesting, it is not that interesting to visit, unless maybe you are an engineer and can appreciate the hydroelectric plant. It isn't as dramatic as the Hoover. It is just a huge wide dam. You drive up on it. You look out over the giant lake that was created, Lake Nassar, and then leave.

Lake Nassar.

Hydroelectric dam at the High Dam.

Temple of Philae.

Next up was the Temple of Philae, which was my favorite site near Aswan. It was taken apart and moved when they built the High Dam because the lake that formed would have flooded the temple. To get to the new temple site, you had to take a boat. Once there, you were free to explore. The temple was the usual set of wonderful Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphics, but two things were different. One, it was on a small island surrounded by Lake Nasser. Two, the type of people we were visiting with. Sure, there were plenty of Western tourists, but there were a ton of Muslim tourists too. Based on the number of families there, I think it was getting a ton of Egyptian visitors because of the holiday of Eid.

Kids posing at the Temple of Philae.

A Muslim tourist at the Temple of Philae.

At this site, I finally got a video of some of the so called Egyptian security. There have been a few terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt over the years (maybe 7 in 20 years). I assume a lot of the security measures are in response to these attacks and a desire to keep the tourist dollar flowing into the country. As a tourist, you can't drive yourself through most parts of Egypt without a police escort. In some areas, they force you to join a convoy. On every road, there are multiple checkpoints. In every tourist town, there is at least one guy sitting at banks, at major road access points, at the Temples, and at any place a tourist might go. However, they don't do seem to do anything. We have this same perception problem in the USA. We don't know how many attacks the invasive security actually stop at home or in Egypt. Granted, I never pulled a gun out, but I think most of it is just a show in Egypt. Just take a look at this video:

Egyptian Security at the Temple of Philae.

Temple of Philae doorway.

Temple of Philae hieroglyhpics. Check out the cross on the left that was added when it was converted to a church.

Temple of Philae courtyard.

The one Egyptian guy I stayed with said that the one thing that the security is in place for is for the tourists to get help getting rid of the over aggressive salesman. Apparently, it used to be worse of a problem. I didn't see the tourist police helping anyone. A more jaded take on what the security does it that they collect baksheesh. At multiple sites, security would let you cross lines and even take your picture, if you gave them a tip. One interesting thing to realize was that we were not the only ones being harassed for baksheesh. A well-to-do Egyptian couple from Cairo was more fair skinned and dressed nicer than most Egyptians even though they were born and raised in Cairo. They said they would always get treated like tourists until they opened their mouths. Our driver around Aswan had a passenger with us. He got stopped and harassed for it at the security checkpoint for the Temple of Philae. I don't know if he paid, but when he got back in the car, he was fuming about police and baksheesh. The final time that I saw non-foreigner tourists get hassled was when a policeman stopped traffic to let an Egyptian man we were riding with get out of a parking spot. He said it was a joke that the guy helped and we did not need it, but he also said that he didn't dare not give some money to the policeman because of what they could do.

Temple of Philae art.

Temple of Philae columns.

On our boat ride out to the Temple of Philae.

Our last stop on our short tour was the unfinished obelisk. An obelisk is a 4 side pillar with a pyramid like top. One of the Pharaoh's had ordered the biggest obelisk ever to be built. To cut it out, they used rocks about twice the size of a fist to break the stone around the obelisk away. It looks like they almost had three sides completed when the obelisk cracked. They abandoned it and left it there for us to find and marvel at. Curiously, there are only 9 ancient Egyptian obelisks left standing in Egypt. The rest have been moved. The Roman Empire particularly liked them. Italy has 18. Then, there are 4 in the England, where so many other Egyptian treasures have been taken. Finally, there is 1 each in Israel, France, Turkey, Poland, and the USA ('Cleopatra's Needle' in Central Park).

This unfinished obelisk would have been the biggest ever.

The tool used to cut out stone.

When we got back from our tour, it was time to get ready to leave Aswan. Since we had eaten feast food in Luxor we thought Eid was done and didn't have any concerns about booking our tickets back to Cairo. We were wrong. Eid is a multiday feast that just keeps going and going. After spending too much time fighting to keep our place in line, we found out all the trains were full. The song We Gotta Get Out of Ghis Place by the Animals kept going through my head. We went to an Internet cafe to see if we could book tickets online. We found one site. We couldn't book online. We called. They said there was one available the next night, which is when we wanted to leave, but we had to go to the station to pick it up. They didn't give us a reservation number or take our name. I asked how the station would know the ticket was ours. They just said to go get them. Betty went to fight the lines again. I stayed online looking for possibilities and making phone calls. After only ten minutes, Betty came back and Willy Wonka's We got a Golden Ticket was practically busting out of her. We were good to go.

Pushing to hold a place in line.

McDonalds boathouse.

To celebrate, Betty coaxed me into going to for a treat she knew I'd been missing, a milkshake. The only place she could guarantee I'd get one that was up to par, instead of flavored milk, was the McDonald's boathouse. The milkshake was fantastic. Having a McDonald's in an old boat house was pretty cool too, if not a little weird. The view was fantastic and a great way to close out our time in Aswan.

A Mobile ATM.

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